In the early 1970s when I was a young girl growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, my brothers and I were delighted when one autumn afternoon we arrived at my grandparent’s new home on West 10th Street for a sleepover. Theirs was a big, white, two-story antebellum-style home with large pillars out front, a living room fireplace, a winding staircase, and a wrap-around porch featuring a swing set and humongous (to us) rocking chairs. To our young eyes, the home looked like a mansion, and we were thrilled to be joining them for their first night’s stay. But when we awoke the next morning, our thrill and delight turned quickly to horror and tears when we saw that the letters “KKK” had been burned into their front yard – just a few feet from the swing set and rocking chairs we had played on the night before. We were old enough to know that what we saw were not “just letters”; we knew they were symbols for something dark, vile, and threatening.
Despite our terror, as children we had little-to-no sway or say in convincing our grandparents that they needed to move away, immediately, from their new home. The threat of evil that we felt did not seem to frighten or discourage them, and if it did, they never showed those feelings to us. Instead, I remember my grandmother simply smiling, showing us her pistol, and assuring us of her capability to use it if she needed to. Simultaneously, I recall my grandfather proudly and purposely sitting on that porch for hours that day, despite the summer’s heat. With an unwavering tenacity, he was determined to show whoever burned those letters in his yard that he was not intimidated or afraid. And they both literally stood their ground for the next 23 years that they would occupy that home. I thank God for the courage of these two larger-than-life loved ones who taught me to draw on audacity, resilience, and resoluteness in the face of fear and threat; these values are foundational to how I live my life today.
Though it was ages ago, that 10th Street-experience has never left me. Nor have I forgotten the contrasting realities of what cowardly evil ones do in the dark of night, and how the bold fearlessness of daring and courage can be used to snub their efforts to harm. Truth be told, those three letters, KKK, are symbols of things dark and vile that have for too long haunted this country: racism and hate fueled by warped beliefs in white supremacy.
As the U.S. continues to grapple with racism, racist hatred, burgeoning membership in white supremacist groups, and increasing protests against teaching historical truths about this nation’s centuries-long history of deep-seated racial conflict, more must be done to document, share, teach and preserve the stories of the many courageous souls whose bravery and valor led them to risk their lives for their rights — and ours, to live and be free on 10th Streets everywhere.
This article shares brief profiles 10 African American men and women who – most of whom were born into slavery, who endured perilous threats to life and liberty during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history: the Civil War. They are among the true, and too frequently unacknowledged American heroes and heroines. With amazing boldness, they each withstood terrifying risks, and refused to back down in the face of torture and death so that one day, all would live free from threat and harm because of the color of their skin and the neighborhood they moved into.
As this nation prepares for its 2nd observance of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and as I reflect on that day on 10th Street, I am honored and blessed to share these stories of the courageous ten.
- Sergeant Powhatan Beaty (American Hero, Civil War Hero, born into slavery)
Powhatan Beaty initially joined an unarmed, voluntary unit of men who fought against the Confederate. Eventually, Beaty enlisted in the Union army, became a Sergeant, and commanded over 40 men. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor after demonstrating immense courage when he ran into enemy fire to retrieve and hoist the U.S. Flag during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.
- Captain Andre Cailloux (American Hero, Civil War Hero, born into slavery)
Andre Cailloux was one of the first African American Captain’s to be killed in combat against the Confederates. In May 1863, he led the 1st Regiment’s “Colored Company” into battle during what would become the Union’s devastating defeat at Post Hudson in Louisiana. Despite the defeat, Cailloux’s exhibition of brave and courageous leadership would become legendary and serve to bolster widespread confidence in the readiness of blacks for war against the treasonous ones who were their would-be captors.
- William H. Carney (American Hero, Civil War Hero, born into slavery)
After escaping to freedom from slavery through the Underground Railroad, William H. Carney joined the Union army where he repeatedly demonstrated intense courage, resilience and loyalty. Carney’s heroism to fight and save the Union’s flag during the Battle of Fort Wagner would lead him to become the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.
- Corporal Decatur Dorsey (American Hero, Civil War Hero, born into slavery)
As a Corporal in the 39th Colored Infantry, Decatur Dorsey’s valor during what would become known as “The Battle of the Crater” would become legendary. As the Battle progressed, Dorsey would lead his troops twice into combat against Confederate forces. Eventually, his 39th Infantry would engage in hand-to-hand combat to capture nearly 200 prisoners. Dorsey was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.
- Sergeant James Daniel Gardiner (American Hero, Civil War Hero)
James Daniel Gardiner enlisted as a private in the 36th Colored Regiment, but he was promoted to Sergeant following his heroism during the renowned Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Determined to fight the enemies to the death, Gardiner engaged a Confederate officer in lethal hand-to-hand combat after shooting him. His heroics would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
- William A. Jackson (American Hero, Civil War Hero, born into slavery)
Prior to his escape from slavery in 1861 and during a period when blacks were not allowed to serve in the war, William A. Jackson used his place in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to serve as a spy for the Union. After escaping slavery, Jackson met with Union commanders to share critical intelligence on the military strategies and tactics of the Confederates.
- Corporal Miles James (American Hero, Civil War Hero)
Miles James was serving as a Corporal in the Colored 36th Union battalion when he was seriously wounded during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Despite his severe injuries, the brave soldier continued to fight and support the Union’s victory. James was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
- Robert Smalls (American Hero, Civil War Hero, born into slavery)
After being forced to pilot a Confederate ship, Robert Smalls accomplished a miracle. He cast the ship away from the coastline while Confederate officers lay asleep onshore, disguised himself as the ship’s captain, successfully passed through five Confederate ports, and steered the vessel into the arms of Union soldiers. Once in Union hands, Smalls gave them a codebook to support their defense against the Confederates. Smalls would later meet and persuade President Lincoln to admit blacks into the Union army; ultimately, he would become a U.S. Congressman.
- Susie King Taylor (American Heroine, Civil War Heroine, born into slavery)
One of the few slaves who knew how to read and write, Susie King Taylor initially established a school for former slaves on St. Simon’s Island Georgia. Later, she would go on to support one of the first black regiments in the Union army as a nurse. Taylor is considered the 1st black woman to serve as an army nurse. By virtue of tending the wounded amongst the troops, on a daily basis Taylor risked her life as surely as each soldier risked his own.
- Harriet Tubman (American Heroine, Civil War Heroine, born into slavery)
Most widely known for her heroic missions to help enslaved blacks travel the tumultuous journey of the Underground Railroad to secure their freedom, Harriet Tubman was also a spy for the Union Army, and an Army nurse. And despite enduring lifelong physical ailments due to a traumatic head injury suffered at the hands of one of her former slave owners, Tubman remained an outspoken abolitionist who repeatedly risked her life for others.
The above, courageous individuals are only a few among the many true American heroes and heroines who deserve to be recognized in every state of the U.S., and in every History classroom in this nation; without them, there may never have been a Juneteenth.
- Over 179,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army.
- Thousands of black men voluntarily formed unofficial regiments to support Union forces prior to their official admittance into the military in 1863.
- 16 Black soldiers were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for heroism the United States of America during the Civil War.
- To be black and fight against the Confederacy took extraordinary courage, and it meant risking “execution on the spot” if captured (e.g., The Fort Pillow Massacre).
Let us never forget them. #Whatcouragelookslike #blackAMERICANheroes #Juneteenth